Prologues: A Defense and a Primer


I have long been a supporter of prologues, especially in longer fantasy works. My own debut novel has a prologue that I fought for when I was considering traditional publishing. But the stigma against prologues still runs strong in many communities and is stronger than ever in traditional publishing circles. Let’s take a moment to look at what prologues are good for and discuss proper prologue usage.

What is a prologue?

We all know the obvious answer. It’s that opening chapter of the book that is often confusing or boring and is labeled “prologue” instead of “chapter 1.” But there’s actually a specific purpose for a prologue–or, more accurately, a few specific purposes, each mutually exclusive. So, here’s a quick listing of some good reasons to use a prologue:

  1. Give a first-hand account of a specific event that is central to the primary story line but does not take place in the natural arc of the story. A great example is the Game of Thrones prologue, which kills everyone involved but makes clear to the reader that White Walkers do, in fact, exist.
  2. Tease a particularly cool aspect of the world-building which won’t become obvious to the reader in the opening chapters of the book to build excitement in–and offer context for–the opening.
  3. Offer a POV that is useful for the reader to understand but doesn’t fit in the main narrative. Often termed the “villain POV prologue” because of a trend to use these to explain villain motivations, this is a tool that can be great, but it better be very important or you’ll get a lot of complaints for extraneous information.

I hesitate to say this list covers everything, but if it doesn’t fit any of these three elements, be very cautious about using a prologue for that. As a general rule of thumb, if your reason for including the prologue is anything other than “I think this addition will help my readers get greater enjoyment out of the primary story arc that starts in Chapter 1” then you should cut your prologue.

Is this thing working?

Once you’ve determined that your prologue fits into one of the above reasons for use, you need to make sure your prologue accomplishes what you set out to do. Prologues are a much finer art than many realize. Here’s some common mistakes and ways to correct them.

First, did you spend your prologue dropping a bunch of world-specific terminology without much explanation? You probably have a problem. If readers are on page one or two of your book and don’t understand what you’re saying because of world-specific words, you’re going to lose a bunch of readers. And I completely understand that the prologue is not the place to explain those words. Please, for the love of all decent writing, do not edit your prologue to have a definition after every world-specific word. Instead, find ways to make clear through context what the words mean. My husband uses the Rage of Dragons prologue as an example here (and not a good example). See below for his full opinions on that prologue. The important part of this point is, it doesn’t matter if the word has a typical meaning that you’re leaning on. Evan Winter uses “the Chosen” and “the Gifted” as world-specific words, which can easily be assumed to mean something we understand. But it’s clear that the usage isn’t the general sense, and as a result, the lack of clarification can be confusing. If possible, don’t use words which have world-specific meanings in your prologue, or if you must, make clear through the immediate context what the word means.

Now let’s talk about how long your prologue is. Is it more than 3 or 4 pages in the printed book? This is typically about 1500 words on the high end, and shorter is almost always better. If your prologue is longer than this, you’re probably not focusing on the correct elements, or you’re explaining too much context, or maybe even mixing goals. Chapters can have multiple reasons for existing. Prologues must be lean, precise, and clearly understandable. Evaluating a prologue that is too long can be a challenge, so get some beta reader feedback to determine how to cut it down.

Prologues are typically designed to hint at information that will be important later in the book, but this often leads to an additional problem. Does your prologue go out of its way to avoid explaining what’s going on in that specific moment, and/or intentionally end without resolving the scene in an attempt to be mysterious? Stop that. You’re trying too hard and I guarantee it will fall flat for a lot of readers. If you’re writing from a POV you don’t want to go into too deeply for fear of breaking a later reveal, change the POV. Nothing frustrates a reader more than feeling like the author is intentionally hiding things from them. We are, but they shouldn’t feel it.

Finally, what’s the effect on the book if you remove the prologue entirely? Does the story remain completely unchanged by dropping the prologue, including context and reader engagement? If so, cut that thing. It might be the coolest scene in your mind, but if it doesn’t enhance the story, the reader doesn’t care. Conversely, does your book fail to make any sense or feel like it’s missing major story elements if you pull the prologue? Well, turns out, you don’t have a prologue at all. What you actually have is a first chapter and you need to connect it more directly to the main story. If the events are too removed to fit in the story arc there, find ways to drop the information throughout the narrative (or, if it fits your book, through the dreaded flashback) instead of in a prologue. Or maybe consider if your story starts in the right place.

Why even try?

As disliked as prologues are in the modern publishing world, you may be wondering if it’s even worth trying to write one. Some agents will reject on the prologue alone and those that don’t are extremely critical of prologues. Maybe even more critical of prologues than of first pages.

Absolutely you should write one.

Despite everything I’ve said about the dangers and pitfalls of prologues, I would never tell you not to write one if you think it fits your story. Prologues serve a very specific set of uses and are often misunderstood and misapplied. But in those instances where they are done right, they are absolutely critical to the story. I’m going to use my own work as an example here.

I went back and forth on a prologue several times and had several different drafts of my potential prologues. I queried initially without a prologue. Rewrote to improve flow and queried with a prologue, but got some backlash over my prologue. Pulled the prologue and got significant reader feedback that my opening was too abrupt. I finally settled on the prologue I have because it fits my rule above. The story was complete without it, but my prologue gave readers a chance to explore the political landscape and underlying tensions between a handful of important side characters. It was a short, direct scene that addressed the setup of the story without giving you a full history of the world, or even the recent war. This is the sort of prologue that supports the main narrative without frustrating the reader with world-building details or being so removed that the reader only understands the context several books later.

The same can be said for the Harry Potter prologue (you don’t have to like the books or the author, but the prologue does it’s job: telling you that Harry is important); the Game of Thrones prologue (you, the reader, have knowledge that the characters only learn later, so you feel more tension when Eddard Stark says that White Walkers are myths); the Red Sister prologue (you know from page one that “a nun” has a very different training than in our modern world and that becoming a nun must be dangerous); and many others.

A final, cautionary comment

Many epic/high fantasy authors and epic science fiction authors make a very specific faux pas that is often credited as the reason prologues have a bad name. They use the prologue to info-dump setting or history. I’ve even seen numerous advice web sites describe this as a potential use of a prologue.

Do Not Do This!

Unless you are well-established author with a loyal following of dedicated readers, you will, not get away with this. An agent who sees this in a debut author’s submission will auto-reject (if they even look at a submission with a prologue at all). A reader who picks up your book without knowing you as an author will look at this and skip it–or they might just put the book down. Either way, that prologue isn’t helping and might be hurting. Feel free to add an appendix discussing these things if you think some readers might be interested. Some people will be. But placing it in a prologue has a very, very high likelihood of harming the marketability of your book.

Hand Selling Your Book


Most self-published authors will, at some point, find themselves in a position where they have to physically talk to a potential customer and sell them a copy of their book. This is pretty different for those who only publish e-books versus those who also publish print books, but the core skill is the same. You have to be able to describe your book in a compelling manner.

There are two main locations where you might find yourself directly trying to sell your book to consumers: Conferences and Book Signings. Obviously the latter only applies to people with physical books to sign, but the events are different enough that it’s worth discussing.

As a quick aside, yes, a lot of indie author sales come from e-books and the majority of those are “sold” via discussions online. Many of these skills are less applicable to internet discussion because they involve establishing a rapport with your potential customer. Still, learning how to describe your book can be valuable even for more distanced, online communications.

Conferences

Let me share my anecdotal experience from my recent conference on October 1, 2021 as a example of how to sell your book in person.

I was seated between a 20 year veteran attendee of the conference who had been publishing for a few years and had connections with most conference coordinators (my table-mate) and a woman who was selling a YA portal fantasy with adult crossover that decorated her table with a bunch of pretty cool dragon miniatures. This positioning was great for me. People walking down the hall tended to stop at the dragon minis, discover that the book was YA with crossover potential, and about a third to half the time look around for other interesting things in the area. Or, they would stop at my table-mate’s book, chat with him about his publishing plans and how well he’d been doing at the conference, and then notice my book and ask about it. The pitches are what I want to evaluate, though.

The YA crossover author always opened the same way. “Do you like dragons?” At a science fiction/fantasy convention, that answer was about 90% yes. But then she moved on. “Great. My book is about a boy who must master the magic in his blood and learn to wield his magic sword.” I got that pitch wrong, especially because she had a decent stakes sentence in there and did mention dragons in it, but that’s close. It always led to a similar question. “So this is YA?” And just like that, she’s immediately trying to justify why it’s not only for teenagers. It didn’t help that her series was named “The Dragon’s Children” series or something similar, which hinted to a lot of people that her book starred children. To be clear, She did perfectly well at the conference, and I sat next to her for three days and walked away a bit interested in her book. When I have time to read (probably over the upcoming holidays) I’ll likely buy a copy. If you enjoy YA crossover or are interested in giving it a shot, she had several dedicated readers stop by, as well, and clearly writes a good book. Give it a shot here if it sounds like your thing: Red Dragon’s Keep.

My table-mate had a similar approach. People stopped to check out his table and–in the rare occasion that he didn’t already know them–he had a pitch pre-prepared. “This is the book I’m encouraging people to start with. It’s two master mage, shape-shifting dragons running an interdimensional hotel. It’s the ultimate cross-genre book. A little bit of everything.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear “this book has a little bit of everything,” I immediately ask myself what it’s really about. A disjointed book held together by common setting has to be really good to work. That pitch worked on some of the people walking by, and some of the people already knew about him and were looking to buy his book. But a lot of others immediately asked about his other books. Those were collections of short stories, some independent of his trilogy but some about the same dragons going on vacation (“Sometimes the dragons take a vacation, and find other, well-known tropes but react very differently from what we’d expect. Master mage dragons don’t view a zombie apocalypse the same way, you know!”). Again, as with the author on the other side, he had a fan base and after talking with him for several days the book does, actually, sound interesting. Here’s the link if you’re interested: A Day at Georgie and Armand’s Place. But his pitch, similar to the YA crossover pitch, tried to include everyone.

This is a great starting point for talking about your book. I quickly learned to have a short verbal pitch that I could rattle off, along with a hook that could connect with my audience. For me: “I have a political epic fantasy about a king trying to bring peace after a civil war when his countrymen think he’s a traitor while a reluctant thief is manipulated into stirring up rebellion. Some early readers said it’s Game of Thrones-ish, but I insist I’m nowhere near that dark!” Almost always I was able to start a conversation about what the reader looks for in a book, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were telling me. “So you’re not going to build up an amazing character for me to love just so you can kill them off?” Ah. This reader wants to connect with their characters and ride the entire story with them. My kind of reader. And from that I can discuss the elements of the book that I think they’ll enjoy. I had one possible buyer who hesitated over my description of the book as “political epic fantasy.” He said he wasn’t sure he could handle more politics after the events of the recent election. I agreed, telling him that was understandable, and made no effort to convince him to buy even though he was obviously interested. Why? Because he wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the book and selling the book to someone who was going to be frustrated by it wasn’t going to help either of us. The authors on either side of me probably would have tried to push the sale. I’m happy that he was drawn to the book despite being unsure about the politics. He’ll be a reader or he won’t, but he definitely won’t be someone who read the book when he was unsure and disliked it because he wasn’t ready for it.

I ended up outselling my table-mate at this conference. Admittedly, I only outsold him by two books, and we both had a good weekend, so I don’t think his strategy wasn’t working. It clearly was. But mine, improvised off the activity I saw around me, worked just as well. I think we were all surprised by that.

Book Signings

A signing is a different world from a conference. At a book signing, you’re trying to get a group of people gathered, talking about your book to draw in other potential readers. If you can get some personal friends to show up and get that started, all the better. This worked for me. A few people I knew from work and/or writing groups showed up early in the signing, which resulted in a couple other people in the store stopping by to check out the event. At the end, I left 7 copies out of 20 the store ordered on their shelves (hint, if you live in the Colorado Springs area, the Barnes and Noble on Briargate still has a few copies of my signed book in store). But the way I manages that was actually not about bringing my friends in, though that helped.

After my initial crowd died down, the store manager stopped by and talked to me about successful and unsuccessful signings she’d seen in the past. The best author she’s ever had, she told me, is a mystery author who drives up from a nearby town to do signings there. He stands in the doorway, greets everyone, asks what they read, and directs them to his table if he thinks he can get them to give his latest book a shot. I don’t recall the exact number, but she told me he sells tons of books for them every signing. I think it was 70 or 80 books a signing.

I admit that I didn’t have that confidence. I got up, I stood by the door, and I greeted customers. But I didn’t try to strike up a conversation with them. I just offered them a free bookmark and if they paused and looked interested, I tried to catch their attention. Most of the bookmarks I handed out didn’t get me any additional attention. How many of those customers would have paid attention, maybe even bought a book, if I’d been more engaging? Probably more than a couple. But it’s hard standing in a store that you are not affiliated with and trying to convince their customers to care about you. If you piss those customers off, the store might not invite you back. But if you don’t sell enough books, the store also won’t invite you back. So where’s the balance?

Having been through it and comparing to my conference experience, here’s my advice. First, find the simple pitch that you can say while offering a handout. For my book, I should have said “Would you like a bookmark for my political epic fantasy novel?” And I definitely should have approached a couple people and said “Hey, I notice you’re buying (George R.R. Martin/Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson). Would you like to hear about my new epic fantasy novel?” But the manager was right. Sitting behind the table does nothing but scare people away. I sometimes just walked away (in visual range but far enough that I wasn’t lurking by the table) and watched people stop to take a look. Sometimes those were the same people who had specifically avoided coming near the table when I was nearby or sitting there.

So, how do you talk about your book at a signing? By engaging with other content they want to read as authentically as possible. This has a lot of similarities with conference discussions, but it is not the same. In a book store signing, you have to convince potential readers to look at your table at all, because they’ll tend to avoid a place where a person is waiting to talk to them. At a conference, the readers stop by the table because they want to talk to the authors. Know where you’re selling, and know what the consumers there are looking for. That’s the key to getting people to give your book a shot.

Self-Publishing Guide Part 5: Marketing Resources


If you’re just here for a list of great marketing resources, this is your lucky day. I’ll re-iterate what I said in the first piece of this marketing discussion: If you haven’t planned your marketing, you should do that first. Take a look at part 4 of this self-publishing guide for an overview of how to think about marketing your books and think about the elements discussed there before picking among the resources below.

Marketing Tools

  1. Social Media. Yes, I know, many of us hate the concept of becoming engaged in social media, but here’s the thing. You don’t have to do much. I’m occasionally on Twitter, by which I mean, maybe 3 posts a week and sometimes I don’t even open the app for a week, mostly my comments are responses to other people in the writing community. I have like 300 followers (which is basically non-existent in the marketing world). But my tweets about my book have gotten some attention, so it’s working for me (sort of). This isn’t about becoming a social media giant, it’s about finding a small group of people you can connect with somewhat regularly and then occasionally mentioning your book in relevant posts. And you don’t have to be on every platform, just the one or two that work for you. If you happen to be someone who loves making videos, go for YouTube. If you love creating interesting photos to convey a message, Instagram. When in doubt, join the Twitter writing community and answer writing tweets that sound interesting to you. The key here is to have at least half, preferably 2/3rds of your posts have nothing to do with anything your audience has to pay for.
  2. NetGalley. A lot of people don’t even know what this is until they start researching publishing. Netgalley is basically a web site that helps authors distribute advance copies of their books to readers for free in return for a review. Now, you won’t get 100% return. I got 362 readers and about 40 reviews… and that was a pretty good return. Still, this is the web site traditional publishers use, and if you go for discounts through BooksGoSocial, ALLI, or even just the listing offered through membership in the IBPA you can get listed for a reasonable price. If that’s still out of your range, there are other options for this type of service, but they don’t have as good a reputation in the publishing field. I genuinely don’t know how good or bad those other options are.
  3. Bookbub. This is a featured listing you purchase through the company after your book is released. You are not guaranteed a spot and if you get selected, the cost is relatively high. For a fantasy book, for example, buying a feature costs between $480 and $2500. While I haven’t directly used this company, I’ve heard very, very good things about them from those who have, including that they made way more money than they spent on the listing. But nothing is a guarantee. You could easily drop a thousand dollars here and make less than a quarter of that back in ROI.
  4. FreeBooksy/BargainBooksy. These are the same website, just slightly different services based on whether you’re offering a free or reduced price book. It’s basically the same deal as BookBub but way, way cheaper and with more flexibility. You can choose to list your book for between $45 to $110 dollars, or you can request a spot as a deal of the day (if you meet their criteria) for between $100 to $170, or you could promote an entire series (if you have more than one book out) for about $170. The subscriber lists for their fantasy genre are not much lower than Bookbub, though they are lower. Despite that, I know a few self-published authors who swear by advertisements on these sites.
  5. Amazon/Facebook/Bookbub ads. Purchasing advertisements can be a good plan, but there’s a few caveats. First, this is rarely worth the money before you release your first book. For the most part, an unknown author buying ads for their debut novel’s pre-order is just throwing money away. Once you have a couple of books out as a backlog, though, buying ads to spotlight a pre-order for the next book in the series might work. For those of us releasing a debut, ads after release might do some good. What I’ve heard is that the targeting algorithms may need regular tweaking, you may need to spend a decent amount on ads to get much return, and it’s hard (but not impossible) to make this worth the investment when you only have one book released. Since my book isn’t out yet, I can’t give you personal experience, but that’s what others say who have tried this.
  6. Emailing reviewers personally. Reviews are the lifeblood of any self-published book’s success, so including reviews from well-known reviewers is a great marketing strategy if you can get the people in question to try the book. This will also be the single most work-intensive portion of any marketing campaign that includes it. The reason for that is that you probably don’t want to just blast a mass e-mail at these reviewers. Instead, you want to evaluate the options and pick only the people who will be good for your book’s image—and between blogs, YouTubers, review magazines, and other social media, there are tons of reviewers to comb through, and some of them won’t accept self-published books so sending to them is a waste of time. As well, you want to give each reviewer a reason to care about picking up your book, which typically means explaining how your book fits in with the other content on their platform. That only works if you know what content they have on their platform, so there’s another mountain of research. That also means you have to write a slightly different form letter for each reviewer—and yes, use a form letter with a couple sentences of personalization. A personal letter to everyone will take you several months. But if you can get a few well-established reviewers to give you reviews (say, Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Inn, or Fantasy Book Critic), people will definitely notice your book.
  7. SPFBO (or SPSFC). These are contests created by a couple of established members of the publishing industry specifically to help good self-published fantasy and science fiction books get more recognition… You know, because some people are fucking awesome. SPFBO was the original, standing for Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off and created by Mark Lawrence to get ten different well-known fantasy blogs to evaluate and discuss self-published fantasy books. This year is the first year of the spin-off, SPSFC, which I believe stands for Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (or maybe Contest?) to give the same voice to science fiction books. The submission windows are small (submissions rarely stay open for an entire day), but if you catch it and have a qualifying book, it can be great for your publicity.
  8. Foreword Reviews. Every self-published author should be submitting to Foreword Reviews. It’s free and while they might not choose to review your book, if they like the book and give it a review, it’s a huge step in the right direction. Again, reviews are the lifeblood of a successful book launch. This does not hold true for their affiliate, Clarion Reviews, which is probably perfectly reputable but is not free. Clarion reviews is a paid editorial review site. There’s nothing wrong with these, but there’s a time and a place for them and it’s not for everyone.
  9. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Reviews is another paid editorial review site. They have a pretty big reputation in the publishing world, so you may want a review from them. But they aren’t quite the giant they used to be. These days there are several editorial review sites, and many of them are cheaper (Clarion Reviews, Blue Ink Reviews, etc.). Before deciding which company to use, first decide if you want an editorial review. One of the best uses of this type of review is as advanced marketing to gather some feedback you can quote either on your book cover or in a “readers said” page in your opening pages. This requires you to have a book ready to submit in time for them to read and review the book before you start your marketing in earnest. Completely honestly, the reason I didn’t do any of these type of reviews is that I mis-timed my release and wasn’t able to submit a copy early enough to get the review for my marketing. There are other uses for these reviews (Amazon has an entire section where you can add editorial reviews of your book to build hype) and they aren’t useless, but I simply wasn’t willing or able to pay the prices required to get one when I couldn’t add the quotes where I wanted to use them. These range from about $300 to $600 per review, depending on the site and the length of review.
  10. Building a mailing list. This is a big, big deal in a lot of writing circles. The main piece of advice I hear from a lot of successful authors on how they built an audience able to support themselves is that they built a mailing list and started a newsletter to keep the interest of their audience. If you look around my site, you’ll notice I don’t have one. I may start one, but so far I haven’t known what I’d even say in a newsletter. I have no desire to spam anyone’s inbox with junk mail, so I won’t start a newsletter until I have something to say. That said, a lot of authors insist this is the number one marketing tactic that worked for them. I doubt they’re all lying. If you can create meaningful content for a newsletter without losing all your writing time, this is a good tactic. You can even get help building your newsletter subscribers with the service AuthorsXP, and possibly save some money doing that through an ALLI discount code.
  11. Submitting to competitions. I’ve mentioned SPFBO and SPSFC by name, but there are plenty of other reputable competitions you can submit your books to for visibility. A couple reputable ones I know of are IndieBRAG and the Foreword INDIES. If you google self-published book competition, you’ll find a ton, and probably half to two thirds of them will be scams. I use the ALLI listing of competitions (found here) to evaluate any competition before I decide to submit to them, and if it isn’t there I typically assume the worst. It might be fine, but I’d rather not be the example that teaches others about a poor decision.

Now I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list of marketing tools. ALLI has some discount codes for a few other providers that I haven’t even mentioned and there are plenty of things not listed on ALLI’s web site. But this should definitely get you started.

As a quick reminder. Many of the above resources only work if you’ve done the work to create a quality product targeted at the right readers. Keep in mind at every stage that self-publishing has a reputation of being lower quality, so any defect someone finds is likely to be added to the heap of “self-published novels suck and no one ever edits them” that plagues everyone who tries this route. I’ve had reviews that claim my book needed a good editor because the reader didn’t like the pacing, but my editor (who was a former employee of a traditional publishing house before she went freelance) thought the pacing was perfect. Anything you can do to look more professional (read: more like a traditionally published novel) will make you look more legitimate to readers on the fence about your book. Within reason. At the end of the day, every reader who loves your book has just as valid an opinion as those who don’t, so when you feel like crap about a bad review/comment/whatever, remember: Listening to only the negative comments disrespects every reader who loves your book. Don’t disrespect your readers. Trust them when they praise something in your book and focus on those elements when finding new ways to talk about your book. Use their words if you can (with permission, of course). Honest readers are the best marketing simply because money can’t buy their opinion.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Three: Final Packaging


Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 3 of my guide: Finalizing Your Book for Release. This is a topic that is going to cover several smaller elements that are often brushed off in other self-publishing resources. “Once your editing and cover design is done, you’ll need to get the interior formatted, file for copyright, and upload the files for distribution.” Awesome. How does all that work? How do I get my book in the hands of readers and how do I make sure the interior looks appropriate? Do I need a copyright?

I’m going to break down these elements here, discussing tools I’ve found useful in this process, costs to expect, and what elements of each are important. This one got a little long, so use the headings to find the piece you need to know about.

Formatting

By far the single most important piece of this step is the interior formatting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. As well, the complexity of your formatting will vary depending on what formats you are releasing your book in, so let’s start there. Are you releasing a print book? A hard cover? Just an e-book? You’ve probably thought about this before (at least, I hope you thought about it when considering cover options), but this is the first place where your decisions will be different based on what formats you want to release.

If you’re releasing a print book and an e-book, the formatting for those two formats is pretty different. I did this formatting myself and it’s entirely doable, but there are also a number of other options for getting formatting done. Here’s a few of the options:

  1. Some distribution options allow you to use their system to auto-format your interior content. I know that Smashwords, does this and I am pretty sure that Amazon has a system for this as well. Check with your distributor to see if this is an option, to take this step off your hands entirely. Many of these are free for using the distribution system.
  2. Some software exists that will do formatting for you, allowing you some pre-set choices to customize your book without any real effort on your part. The most obvious of these is Vellum, but it’s Mac specific.
  3. Some more complex software exists that will let you do complete customization of your formatting if you learn the way the tool works. The most popular of these is Adobe InDesign. While this is a tool that can be learned relatively quickly and there are some pretty good tutorials on YouTube, this is the option that risks you being able to really screw up your book if you aren’t careful.
  4. You can hire a professional formatter to lay out the interior of your book. This is relatively inexpensive, running somewhere between $100 to $300 depending on the vendor. Also, some cover artists will include interior formatting as an add-on to their cover design services. In the instance of formatting as an addon to cover design services, it’s somewhat common to get a discount on the formatting cost for pairing the service with covers.

Personally, I feel like there are too many options to get your own interior formatting done to justify hiring a separate formatter just for interior design. If you’re getting a good deal by pairing it with your cover design then go for it. It can be a bit of a process, so if it’s cheap to take the process out of your hands, go for it. If, however, you are looking for it as a separate service, check out the softwares and auto-formatters before you look at vendors. The best reason to hire a professional formatter is that you need some customized formatting but you can’t learn to do it yourself in the more complex formatting softwares that exist. Mostly, this means you’re picky about what your interior looks like or you have a lot of pictures in your book. If you choose to do this work yourself, it is entirely doable, but the tools available to you will vary by what computer system you use.

If you’re using a Macintosh, you have an awesome tool available to you: Vellum. I tested this one despite using PCs myself and it’s a great tool. You can play around with all the formatting you might want before you pay for the software, resulting in the best trial of a piece of software I’ve ever seen. When you’re ready to create the final files to upload to your distributor, it’s a one-time fee of $250. That cost allows you to format as many books as you want without any additional fees. I love any software that has a one-time cost instead of a subscription system. As well, Vellum is particularly good at simple, well-crafted formatting that makes both print and e-books look great. The two downsides are very situational, but can be pretty frustrating if they affect you. First, you can’t use Vellum on a PC. While you can rent time on a Macintosh server through services like Mac-in-Cloud, that adds to the cost and adds back in the requirement to manage time carefully when doing your own formatting. Second, Vellum doesn’t work great for picture-heavy books, like illustrated chapter books or picture books.

If you’re using a PC there are fewer softwares that will just do this for you. I’ve heard rumors of a few that are in production, but nothing that is solid enough I’m willing to mention it here. I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will update the blog if I find something on par with Vellum for the PC. On PC, the best software is actually Adobe InDesign. While it can have a bit of a steep learning curve, the YouTube tutorials make it easy to get basic formatting done for print books. Translating that print formatting into e-books can be challenging, but again, YouTube has tutorials. My personal favorites for YouTube tutorials are here for print and here for e-book. The most frustrating elements of this software are the subscription model, which means the longer it takes you to learn the software the more it costs, and the risk that the flexibility available will let you screw up your formatting. Always check proofs before finalizing anything with using InDesign.

Copyright and Other Registrations

Do you need to copyright your work? Yes and no. Your work is automatically copyrighted when you wrote it, so technically filing for copyright is redundant. That said, when you file for copyright, it makes a legal record of the work as belonging to you. That can matter if you ever need to defend the ownership of the work. So how likely is that to happen? Honestly, pretty unlikely. Most authors never have to think about defending their work from plagiarism. But it does happen, and if you do a Google search, you’ll find dozens of instances, including a slew of reports related to an early review distribution site where some people were apparently registering, taking the work from the review site, and publishing it on Amazon as their own. The author can contest that and should win, but it’s messy, especially if they hadn’t yet filed for copyright. Personally, I just created the book in the appropriate distribution sites and didn’t release it, so anyone trying to do that would find the book already exists there. My book hasn’t been pirated, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s related to my copyright, my pre-creation of placeholder versions, he security of the particular review site I chose to use, or just because no one knows who I am and so hasn’t bothered to pirate my book. You are probably in the same boat as me. You can take a dozen precautions, you’ll almost certainly never see any issues, and you’ll never be able to know if that’s because you were careful or because no one cared.

All of that said, I do recommend you copyright your work. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if you do get hit by thieves you’ll kick yourself for not having the legal documentation. So, if you want to do so, here’s the process.

First off, you don’t want to copyright your work until after you’ve done 98% of all edits and adjustments you will make. This is because you need the file you copyrighted to match the file you released. If you rewrote five pages of chapter 7 after filing for copyright, then chapter 7 isn’t covered by that copyright filing. The exact threshold is somewhat vague, but in general, copyright as late as possible, but before you send the book out for ARC review readers. And if you don’t know what that means, don’t panic. I’ll discuss ARC reviews when I get to marketing, because they’re really a pre-release marketing tool. Typically proofreading is minor enough that you can do that after filing for copyright without risking issues, but copy editing is too much editing to do after filing.

Once you’re sure the book is ready to file, you go to the web site of the United States Copyright Office (or if you’re outside the US, you find your local office for registering creative works). Once there, you create an account and click the buttons to file for copyright of a literary work (even if you’re writing trashy romance—they aren’t judging the literary quality, they’re categorizing what item you own). The forms are pretty self-explanatory, but you will have to upload a copy of your work, so make sure you have a digital copy. You can also send in a physical copy, but I recommend just sending the PDF from your formatting. This costs $65 (I was quoted $55 about 6 months ago, so I think this recently went up). The catch is that you do have to include the contact information of the owner, which is stored in their database. You may want a separate entity like a single-member LLC to own the work if you’re concerned about personal privacy. Other than that, it’s a very simple process. There exist companies that will do this for you, but they charge an extra fee for doing the work and it’s very simple, so I would tend to do it myself rather than hiring a legal services company to do it. Save the $50 or so.

On a similar note, this is a good place to discuss ISBN numbers. These are a separate thing from copyrights, but the copyright office will ask for one. The ISBN is just a unique number that identifies your book. You need one per type of book you are releasing—i.e., one for print, one for audiobook, and one for e-book, but Kindle e-book and Nook e-book can use the same one. Some people have run into issues using the same ISBN for Nook and Kindle e-books, but it appears to be a mistake in how they were filing through various distributors. You can use the same ISBN. ISBN numbers cost about $100 each, or you can buy a block of ten for $300. Sometimes there are sales on blocks of numbers, but not always, so it might be worth keeping an eye out in earlier stages to find a good deal. ISBN numbers never expire, so buying a block is worth the discount either way if you can afford it. ISBN numbers are another place where you are required to list your personal information as an item of public record. So, again, if you’re concerned about privacy, creating an LLC might be the way to go. There’s a lot more involved in that than just filing, though, so look into it before doing so. Unfortunately, I decided not to, so I don’t have a lot of great advice on that.

Some people will tell you to just use the free ISBN that Amazon will offer you. If you’re only publishing an e-book you can do this and there isn’t a penalty, but it does limit what you can do with that book. You can’t use that Amazon-provided ISBN no Barnes & Noble Press, for example. It belongs to Amazon. If you want everything to be Amazon exclusive (and there are reasons to do so), then this is a perfectly reasonable option. Just know what you’re giving up to do so.

Distribution

Finally, let’s talk about distribution for your book. Basically, this is just about deciding how readers are going to find your book. There are two major categories for distribution: Print distribution and E-book distribution.

E-book Distribution

The vast majority of self-published e-book sales are purchased on Amazon. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s something like 90% of all e-book sales. That said, there are other distributors. Barnes and Noble has its own self-publishing platforms and Amazon doesn’t make your book available there (or, probably more likely, Barnes and Noble doesn’t choose to pay Amazon to carry their books). Kobo is a popular platform in Canada and Amazon doesn’t distribute through Kobo. Many libraries can’t list your book as an e-book if it’s only distributed through Amazon. But only Amazon has Kindle Unlimited, which is a service which lets people pay monthly for as many books as they can read. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to get people to give your book a shot, since it costs subscribers nothing to take a peek inside.

One of the other very popular methods of listing e-books is through a distribution conglomerate. Two of the most popular ones are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. These are services where for a small fee (often charged as a percentage of your royalties rather than an up front cost) they will send your book to various other distribution channels. As a result, you can use one location to distribute to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and libraries. Awesome! But, there are some drawbacks there as well, primarily that Amazon won’t let you earn the 70% royalties they advertise when you’re selling through a conglomerate. So, do you use a distribution conglomerate or Amazon or some combination thereof?

When I was first investigating self-publishing, someone told me the best path was to list on Amazon and Barnes and Noble personally, then use a distribution conglomerate for the rest of the platforms. That is no longer the case. I don’t know if the person in question was right at the time—it was several years ago now—but this is not true right now. The reason for this is that Amazon does not allow you to run a discount promotion on your book if you aren’t listing exclusively through them. As a result, if you want to use a conglomerate, you should list there exclusively, because you can run a discount through that service which will apply to Amazon. But if you listed separately on Amazon, then your Amazon book doesn’t get the discount.

But I just said that you don’t earn 70% royalties on books sold on Amazon that are distributed through a conglomerate, didn’t I? This is true, but you are getting 35% royalties and that 35% isn’t reduced for delivery costs. Most people don’t realize that the 70% royalties on Amazon aren’t really 70%. Instead, Amazon charges a distribution cost which it deducts from your 70% royalties. Now, for most e-books that distribution cost is around fifteen to thirty cents, so that my $5.99 e-book makes me $4.10 instead of $4.25. But if your e-book is much cheaper than mine, that distribution cost can be more significant. It’s worth noting at this point that Amazon doesn’t allow 70% royalties on books listed at less than $2.99 (unless it’s a temporary promotion), so if you are listing your book at $0.99 you won’t be paying for distribution.

All of this is going to be a matter of personal preference, but here’s the best, simplest way to think about the options for e-book distribution:

  • If you want to be available at multiple different vendors, expect to have significant sales in foreign countries, or expect significant visibility from libraries, use an e-book conglomerate.
  • If you plan to rely heavily on Amazon because you expect primarily US based sales, or if you are doing rapid release strategies (I.e., releasing 3-5 books over the course of a single year at regular intervals to build hype) and therefore need to rely heavily on Kindle Unlimited, or you are a genre that traditionally does very well on Kindle Unlimited (most YA and a lot of romance), then go Amazon exclusive.
  • Only do a hybrid release where you are manually uploading to Amazon and Barnes and Noble separately from an e-book conglomerate if you do not intend to ever do a price promotion (which would probably be poor marketing techniques, but it depends somewhat on your release plans).

Print Distribution

Print distribution is much simpler than e-book distribution. There are only a couple of common vendors that do print on demand options, and the most common ones are Amazon and Ingram Spark. The print quality for these two options is actually pretty similar, although at one point Amazon had a reputation for being a bit lower. That doesn’t seem to be the case now, but the reputation still lingers and has come repercussions.

At a base level, Amazon is much easier to use for creating books that Ingram Spark. The Amazon system is streamlined and user friendly, and it has plenty of info boxes and helpful features to make the process easy. The Ingram Spark system is complex in part because it’s the same system they use for smaller publishing houses which use them, many of which need the more complex system to record all the data they use to identify and categorize their books.

Still, the most significant of the differences between Ingram Spark and Amazon print copies is the ability to get your book placed on some bookstore shelves. Larger chains like Barnes and Noble won’t tend to carry books printed by Amazon regardless of quality. That might be a competitor thing, but they cite quality in most discussions about it. If you have a local indie bookstore you want to place your book in, I’d talk to them in person and see if they have a restriction. It may be harder for them to order books when printed through Amazon since Ingram Spark is a more well-established distributor of print books to physical stores. Another major reason for Amazon being refused by many retailers is that Amazon won’t let you discount your book for other vendors where Ingram Spark does. Most retail locations require you give them a discount of approximately 50% on the list price so they make a profit on selling the book.

Another difference is the cost to you for copies you might want to distribute. Amazon has slightly cheaper author copies than Ingram Spark, and in some cases is quicker at printing and shipping them to you. As an example, my book costs $6.76 to print on Ingram Spark and $6.03 to print on Amazon. That difference actually has a pretty significant effect on profit, especially if you want to give a discount for any reason.

As a quick guide, if you want physical copies to give to friends, sell at conferences, and let people order physical books online, Amazon may be the best option. If, however, you want to have a chance of seeing your books on bookstore shelves, you probably need to use Ingram Spark.

Publishing Services

The one thing I haven’t mentioned in this list is publishing companies that offer to create your book and distribute it for you. Many of them often offer marketing services as well. Some examples of these are Bookbaby or Lulu. I’ll briefly address those services here, but I am a poor resource for that, so if you’re interested I recommend finding reviews on those types of services and looking for others who have used them to discuss.

The concept behind companies like Bookbaby or Lulu is that they offer a collection of services (often cover design, editing, formatting, printing, and distribution all in one, as well as marketing in some cases) and charge the author for those services. Typically you can buy the entire package or just a subset of the services offered. The marketing for these services typically says things like “All the benefits of traditional publishing and the control of self-publishing!” Sounds great, right? But the thing to keep in mind is that these companies aren’t similar to publishers. They don’t make money by selling your books, they make money by selling services to you. This point was driven home to me best by a demonstration I saw at a conference. The presenter opened a web site for one of these conglomerates, selected “create book”, told the system that he had a cover already made, had formatted his own files, and needed no services from the company, and the cost to publish an e-book on Amazon was $200 despite them selling him none of their services. Uploading those files to Amazon yourself is free.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Two: Covers

Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 2 of my guide: Cover Design.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the process, and then I’ll take an in-depth view into some of the important things to know about cover design. I’ll also include some specific resources at the end. Spoiler: One of those resources is the Alliance of Independent Authors!

How does cover design work?

The basics of cover design go something like this. First, you have a book mostly written and decide you’re going to self-publish. Then you google “book cover designer” and get several hundred results with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000 and maybe beyond (or occasionally less). You have no idea what you’re doing, so you send a bunch of questions to a few designers you like. Make sure to ask details of their process at this stage so you know what to expect. This includes number of revisions and what you’re allowed to do with the final images if that information is not clearly conveyed on their web site. Eventually, you pick someone in a price range you like with covers that you think look decent and you hope things work out. That designer probably books three months to a year out, depending on how popular they are.

Did you read my editing post a couple weeks ago? Noticing a trend in timing? Don’t ever expect to book custom services less than three months out unless you’re paying for a rush job. It’s extremely rare to find someone with good experience with an opening right when you contact them.

When time comes for your design, you have a design meeting. You and your designer will discuss your vision for the cover and typically some details that help the designer get a feel for the genre, themes, and tone of your book. The process from there will vary depending on your designer’s process. Mine sketched an initial concept on a video call with me right there. It was some seriously impressive work, even though it was understandably rough. Others will take some time to create a couple mock-ups and get your feedback. You can provide some feedback here, but once a concept is agreed on you typically can’t change the broad strokes of the cover idea. Then the designer sets to work. Throughout the process, make sure you give specific, thorough feedback on adjustments with as much detail as possible (and images when able) to help your designer create what you want. The more information they have, the better product they will create for you. Also remember that you are the customer in this transaction, so asking for a change isn’t an inconvenience. It’s literally what you’re paying them for.

A good designer will give you regular updates on a schedule you know ahead of time. My designer took about five weeks and gave me three updates in that time. He also did the text layout on the cover (i.e., the title and author text and the back cover copy). Make sure you know if your designer will do the text layout for you. This is an important step that you need the right software to do well or you’ll ruin your beautiful cover. When this is done, you’ll receive final files ready to include in your final packaging.

Now, everyone knows that covers are important to a book’s success, but what that actually means can be a bit vague. In my experience, most newer authors (and some experienced self-published authors) make one of several mistakes when planning their cover design.

  1. They don’t understand what the cover is really for.
  2. They bring ideas that are either too specific or trying to convey too many things.
  3. They don’t understand the different styles of covers and what they do.

Let’s take a look at these mistakes and how we, as authors, can be better prepared for our cover design.

What is the cover for?

A lot of authors have very romantic ideas of what their cover is and how it might look, but at the end of the day, this element is a very practical thing. The book cover is marketing imagery. It is not there to add context or details to the story. It’s not intended to give readers visuals on certain moments or characters. And it’s definitely not there to make the author geek out about how cool it is to see a scene or character or setting from their book drawn out. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, since for many of us our favorite covers feature dramatic moments from the story. But take a moment, pull out one of those favorite covers with a scene from the novel, and compare it to the actual description of the moment in the text. I bet it’s very different. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, the cover isn’t for your readers. It’s created to entice other people–people who haven’t read your book–to give the story a try. To those people, the inaccuracy of that scene is meaningless. They don’t know if that’s what happened or not. All they know is if the scene gives them the type of feeling that makes them want to open the book.

Second, the cover must convey your genre and some approximate themes or feel of your book. Can you name a single scene from your book that accurately gives an impression of genre, theme, and feel of your book? Few books actually have that scene, and for those that do, the scene in question generally falls into the too complicated category that we’ll discuss in the next section.

Third, most books that have any sort of scene on the cover like to include the major characters. Does you book have an Avengers: Assemble moment? If so, honestly, maybe consider if it comes off as too cliché. It might be fine, but it probably doesn’t also include an enticing representation of genre, theme, and feel. There’s other reasons why our favorite scene-specific book covers are often inaccurate the the moment in the book, but it boils down to one thing.

Good book covers are complicated endeavors trying to sell the book in a dozen tiny ways, and that job is typically not done well by any given scene within any given book.

What book covers are good at is getting attention. They need the right color contrasts to catch the eyes of appropriate readers. Dark fantasy shouldn’t have bright yellows and golds and romances shouldn’t be all muted greys and browns. At least, not without a major contrasting theme to draw the eye. Whether or not your cover has characters on the front also depends on your genre and the focus of your book. Is it a character-driven political fantasy? Give us an image of characters with obvious tension (but probably not any weapons in hand). A fun-filled sword and sorcery? Cue the lightning bolts and fantasy creatures. Steamy romance? Someone better be half-naked on the front.

The point of all of this is to create an image that you can share as widely as possible which makes the right readers excited to pick up your book. No one wants a reader looking for political fantasy writing a review of the steamy, contemporary romance novel. Maybe they’ll like it, but that’s not who you wrote it for.

Bringing the right ideas to the discussion.

Now that you know the point of the cover, let’s discuss what cover ideas are useful in selecting your cover. This is important both for choosing your designer and for your first discussion with your artist. In your initial google search for cover designers, you probably noticed a trend. Most books had one, maybe two, characters on the front with some sort of dramatic scene behind them. If they didn’t have a character on the front, they no doubt had one central image with a secondary image behind that contrasted the first image. The reason for this is that design is all about drawing the eyes to the right places. Many authors come into the process wanting some complex scene but that defeats the purpose of the cover. It makes every part of the image important, so the browser can’t focus on what the cover is saying.

In the last section I said that your cover needed to convey three things to be effective. First, the genre. Second, the theme. And third, the feel (or tone). There’s a hierarchy to these three things, and honestly, my list is out of order.

The most important thing for your cover to show is your genre, and I don’t mean “fantasy.” My political epic fantasy has a very different cover from Patricia Brigg’s newest contemporary shapeshifter fantasy for very good reason. Her cover needs to convey a fast-paced actiony genre while mine should look like a methodical, and possibly dangerous, dance of manipulation.

After the specific genre, your cover needs to convey tone of the book. Using my own as an example again (viewable on my books page here if you want to check it out), the lighting streaming from the windows contrasted with the shadowy figure on the side gives a sense of danger approaching. As well, the presence of the sword without it being directly active adds to that tone. There’s no open conflict on that cover, which fits the pacing of my book, but there’s definitely tension in the image. I’m quite happy with my cover, but that’s as much because it’s a good representation of what the reader can expect as because of the quality of the art.

Lastly, theme or a hint of the theme or plot is common in cover art. For mine, a reader would realize that the shadowy figure is my secondary protagonist, Niamsha, while the main figure on the throne is my primary protagonist, Arkaen. Those facts aren’t critical to my cover being strong, but it adds a little hint extra, juxtaposing the two primary characters before you even open the book and giving the reader a sense of what is to come. This element is less important enough that it can easily be omitted without harming the quality of the cover. And that is why covers so often feature scenes not present in the actual book, or present only with significant alterations. The cover isn’t trying to give you a visual prologue, it’s trying to tell you what type of book this is.

What cover style is right for you?

By now, some people are confused by what I mean when I say “style” of cover. Aren’t I talking about themes, or whether or not to include characters, or how to convey genre? No, although some of those decisions will affect this one. I’m talking about a fully illustrated cover versus a photo-conglomerate cover. My cover was fully illustrated, it’s beautiful, it fits my book perfectly, and I paid a pretty penny for that thing. You can get cheaper fully illustrated covers, but I loved this designer and I have to say, he didn’t disappoint. I already have 25-ish reviews and the book doesn’t come out for just over a month yet. That’s not my advertising at work. That’s the cover.

But for some books, a cover like mine would be a terrible idea. A great example is Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It’s basically The Bachelorette meets Gladiator where the competition winner gets to marry a magic goddess–with some fun plot twists, of course. The feel of that book is more modern than mine in a lot of ways (despite it still being a low-technology setting), and as a result, a photo-conglomerate cover was perfect for her work. The covers of that series rely heavily on symbols with the scenes more as background shots when they’re present at all, and they look amazing.

She does not pay anywhere near as much as I did for my cover. Like, probably half of what I did and she got exactly what she needed. But my book wouldn’t have thrived on that style of cover design.

And this is what I mean by style of your cover. This is something only you can decide, and unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of tips. The best I can do is drop you some cover resources and suggest you consider which artist is making covers that might be next to yours on a bookstore’s shelves.

  • The Creative Penn. I mentioned this site for editing resources. She also has a great listing of book cover designers.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors. I told you you’ll hear a lot about them in this sequence. They’re the resource I wish I’d checked out before making a bunch of decisions. I might have still used my designer (I mean, that cover…), but this is a great place to check for discounts and find reliable vendors.
  • The resources page of my cover artist, Jeff Brown. I hate to be that person that raves about someone then doesn’t recommend him, but he charges $2k. You probably don’t have that cash. I didn’t have that cash until a family member saw his work and donated the money to help me get the best. But Jeff understands that his prices might be out of your range and maintains a listing of other cover designers that he considers good alternatives if you like his style. But if you do have that cash and you want an illustrated cover, Jeff is amazing.
  • Reedsy. I haven’t used their cover design but they do operate a marketplace of cover artists just like their marketplace of editors.
  • Artstation. This is another place that I have heard about and have no direct experience with. A lot of people found great artists here. Daniel Greene, for example, found his cover artist here (Felix Ortiz, I think?). I have heard of other artists through other connections. It’s a good hub to check out.

Let me leave you with one final piece of information: A rough guide to cover pricing.

Photo-conglomerate CoverFully Illustrated Cover
Premade CoverRanges from $75-ish to $300-ish, depending on coverRanges from $250-ish to $500-ish depending on cover
Custom CoverRanges from $150-ish to $800-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.) Ranges from $500-ish to $2,000-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.)
Additional offeringsSometimes will offer formatting included or for small additional fee, also often have addons like banner images or ad design from the cover image for $25-$75 per item.Rarely if ever offer formatting services, more expensive packages may include banner images or ad design from the cover image; may also offer these separately or as addon services. Some illustrators also do character art and/or map drawing for additional fees.

Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.

The Life of the Magic

By now, most fantasy writers have heard someone tell them about the importance of unique world building. Think of your world like its own character, the advice typically starts. Make it dynamic and have the world engage with the story in its own way. But what about the magic of that world? Is that just a wart on your world-character’s face? I’d argue that, for most fantasy, the magic system is more of a character than the world itself. Magic systems tend to have quirks and limitations, and most have some form of choosing who is better or worse at using them than others.

The thing that sets magic systems apart from other pieces of story creation is that we have tools for world building, for character creation, and for fleshing out characters. We even have tools for structuring and planning a plot (and some of us choose to use those tools to evaluate and edit rather than pre-plan). But we almost never talk about magic systems in this same way. Magic systems are often treated as either a mystical, unexplained pseudo-science that stands in for technology or as a flavor text that serves more as window dressing than a central piece of the story. And yet every fantasy author can pick out the magic system that captivates them years after they’ve finished reading the books. So what makes those systems so unique?

The is a question that many authors have tried to answer, and typically the answers come down the the author in question describing what their readers seems to like about their own magic systems. These answers range from Sanderson’s “A magic system is only as interesting as its limitations” response to several people who point to the sense of wonder in magic systems that create an entirely different world (think Harry Potter) and all sorts of other responses. This was a question I had rarely considered, accepting Brandon Sanderson’s commentary at face value, until I attended a workshop on magic systems at Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference in April.

That workshop was taught by C.R. Rowanson, who is a magic system enthusiast and the author of Restrictions May Apply: Building Limits for Your Magic System, a workbook dedicated to helping fantasy authors create limitations for their magic systems. In his talk, he provided two sliding scales of magic system attributes that combine into four essential types of magic with varying levels of each element. The two scales are hard magic vs. soft magic (one many of us are familiar with) and rational magic vs. irrational magic. C.R. Rowanson has a great explanation of these elements and I highly recommend anyone interested in this look up his upcoming nonfiction book on magic systems. A rough definition of his terms is that hard vs. soft magic refers to how much the audience understands about the magic while rational vs. irrational refers to how much internal logic the magic system employs (i.e., do the individual elements seem to be based on each other).

I’m going to talk about this topic in a slightly different context than C.R. Rowanson does. He focuses on explaining the characteristics which cause a magic system to have certain effects with a goal of helping writers build better magic systems. I want to talk about choosing the effect you want your magic system to have and evaluating how those effects change the type of story you’re telling.

Impact of the Magic

First, let’s talk about the impact of magic on your world and your story. There’s a lot of ways people use magic. Above I listed three: a substitute for technology in a low-tech society, a pure window dressing that rarely effects the plotline, and as a way to add fantastical elements in an effort to create a sense of wonder for the reader. Other authors use magic as a central plot element, often focusing on one or more characters learning how to master their magic in one way or another. Let’s list out a few uses of magic and discuss the effects we’re trying to create with each.

  • Magic is a tool for solving problems. This often fits into my definition of “magic as science.” Typically there are extremely strict rules to the magic system, typically the reader knows those rules, and most of the time those rules relate to each other. A lot of the thrill of these magic systems is the reader guessing how the system might be used within its strict rules to solve a problem which does not, at first, appear vulnerable to that magic. I describe these as “magic as science” because in many of these stories the magic might as well be electromagnetism. The lay-person doesn’t understand how electromagnetism works, but the rules are strict and we use it on a daily basis to create the society we understand today.
  • Magic is a source of problems. This one can go two ways. For option one, we go the same route as above (magic as science) but someone is using said “science” in an evil way or the “machine” has broken and is endangering the world. The danger comes from the characters needing to work against rules they’ve been taught to follow. Option two is actually my favorite for problem-magics: wild magic that no one fully understands. This one needs to be vague to the reader but have enough clear elements that the resolution feels believable. Unlike option one, the threat comes from the character’s needing to figure out what the problem even is, turning the story into a bit of a mystery.
  • Magic is a set piece, adding flavor to the story. This one almost has to be vague. If there is clearly defined magic in your world, then your readers are going to suggest ways to solve problems using that magic and if the characters don’t try they are going to look stupid. The primary exception is if you have a well-defined but very, very weak magic system and never put the characters in a place where that magic can be useful. If all the characters can do is conjure a cup of clean drinking water once per minute and they are never without fresh drinking water then the magic is a set piece. A kind of boring set piece, in my mind, but different readers enjoy different things. With a vague system, though, you can drop interesting bits into the world that never directly change the direction of the plot but build a certain feel for the world… Although now I’m wondering what interesting societal differences there would be in a world that is essentially mundane but never has to worry about clean drinking water. For every rule there’s an exception, after all.
  • Magic is a creator of societal hierarchies. This one is actually rather popular. It’s not that my world has a strict caste system based on arbitrary characteristics, it’s just that the people magic tends to choose are elevated to higher status. My conflict is all about how this lower-caste person is found to have magic and my society has to re-evaluate itself! While the setup here does feel a little cheap to me, it’s also pretty realistic (at least to one way of considering the potential outcomes of magic existing). Most of these stories are “this could be you” stories, which gives us two main types. Wish fulfillment stories where the magic is presented as cool and exciting, or warning stories where the magic caste is found to be terribly corrupt and the magic itself is often addictive or prone to leading people astray.
  • Magic is so prevalent as to create a completely different world. I’m defining this one a bit overly-specifically because any of the other options can have magic that is so pervasive as to completely change the world from what we know. The point with this item on the list, though, is to look at stories where the entire point of using magic is to change the world substantially from what we know. Most historical fantasy falls into this category because a lot of the stories do less looking at magic’s effects on other elements and a lot more looking at how magic would change a specific historical event or time period. The thrill of this magic system is seeing how similar things might be with fantastical elements mixed in while delighting in the changes. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, for example, have flying contraptions that people use for war because, with dragons, why wouldn’t that be a thing? But a lot of the rest of the world is still very similar. That dichotomy is interesting to fans of these types of magic systems. It’s particularly interesting that both historical fantasy books and many high-magic epic fantasy books fit into the same category here. With high-magic epics we’re seeing a completely re-imagined concept of what a magic world might be, where with historical fiction we’re seeing the result of one minor change. But in both the magic functions to create a sense of fascination with the magic while often not relying directly on the magic as a problem solver or creator.

Now, this list makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The goal is to look at a few categories of magic usage and discuss the effects the writer is trying to create. Every piece of magic we include in our work needs to have a purpose, but like our characters and our plot elements, that purpose can vary. No one would ever say that you can’t have side characters that simply flesh out the world without adding to the plot. We often recommend that authors add insignificant details about their world to give depth to the society. And yet we treat magic, with all its complexities and quirks, as nothing more than a tool for our manipulation.

Treat your world like a character? Sure, if it fits. A dynamic world with complex effects is great. But your magic should live, and it should breathe life into the things it touches.


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The Best Pitch

Every writer who considers traditional publishing at some point stops to wonder how to pitch their novel to an agent or editor. It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in all writing communities I’ve been a part of, and it is the one workshop you can guarantee will be available at least once at just about every writing conference. I’m going to use this space to collect the most useful advice that was shared at the conference I recently attended. I personally have pitched several times and have spent a lot of time talking to various editors and agents, so feel free to drop any questions below and I’ll answer them as best I can.

A quick note before I get started: Many people think they want to pitch to an editor instead of an agent or question why they might want an agent at all. The short answer is that many larger traditional publishers will require you to have an agent in order to work with them, and even if the publisher doesn’t the agent has a lot of industry knowledge to help you when you are new to the process. So, here’s the tips I collected from Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference 2021 on pitching and querying.

The Do’s

  • Do your research. Every agent and editor from every company says this same thing, so I’m going to wrap all their opinions into this one point. If you don’t know the name of the person you are querying, find out. If you don’t know what types of books that person represents, find out. If they don’t represent your type of book, find a different person (sending to them is just wasting their time and yours). If you don’t know the submission guidelines for the place you’re submitting, find out and then follow them. Do not send a query which does not follow submission guidelines. It will just end up in the trash.
  • Have a one-line pitch prepared. The more clearly you can present the essence of your story, the more effective your pitch or query will be. This can be in a number of different formats. One of the popular ones is the “[Story A] meets [Story B] but with [twist]” format. These work great if they fit. For my upcoming debut novel, that pitch might be “A Game of Thrones meets The Way of Shadows but with hope.” I don’t love that one (for a number of reasons), but I’m told that it fits so I’m stuck with it. Other formats include a sentence of the style “Character + 2-3 word status quo + 5-6 word conflict” and “Short character description + stakes claim + twist.” Getting these right can be difficult (and is a better subject for an entirely different post), but it’s important to have one that captures the essence of your story. Just remember, they are short.
  • Start your query letter with something eye catching. This is not an invitation to start with “Naked women dance on the moon! Got your attention? Now, about my historical romance novel….” The one-line pitch discussed in the previous point is perfect for this if placed near the top of a query letter. This is a reasonably common way to start a query letter, because the one-liner typically gives a character, a goal, a conflict, and often some form of twist. It also grabs the agent’s attention and gives them something to be interested in while reading the query.
  • Be prepared to talk about your book. The worst situation you will ever find yourself in is to have someone ask “Hey, what’s your book about?” and to realize you can’t explain it in less than three paragraphs. What that person wants is “Oh, I’m writing an epic fantasy with heavy political intrigue about a nobleman trying to keep the peace when his homeland thinks he’s a traitor.” They do not want “Okay, so first I have this guy, he’s kind of complicated because he has magic but everyone thinks that magic isn’t real and he can’t just show them because it’s subtle, but then there’s also this girl, and she’s a thief but she really wanted to be an artist…” You’ve already lost your audience, even if they’d love your book.
  • Expect rejections. Even with the best written story and the best written query, you will pitch to some people who aren’t the right fit for your book. If you’ve narrowed your query pool properly, this means one of two things. If you have a few rejections, you just need to keep trying. If you have a lot of rejections, it might be time to switch up your query letter or take another look at your sample pages.
  • Find as many ways to get direct contact with the person you intend to query as possible—without being creepy. It is a truth that face-to-face pitches have a much higher success rate than cold queries (even virtual ones). Primarily this is because the person you are pitching is already out looking for a new project to take on, but ti also helps that you’re sitting right there. So, if you pitch a book poorly, they may well ask for more information that lets you salvage the pitch. I’ve told the story a couple of times on here about when I pitched to an editor at Del Rey and she said “That’s great, everyone loves elves and dragons, but why do I care about yours?” If I’d had a great comeback that explained what was unique about my book, that would have been a request for pages. But not everyone can afford a conference. So find authors who might be able to give you an in. Jonathan Maberry spent a lot of the pandemic holding monthly educational zoom events with Eric Smith, who is a great agent. Other people may have similar options. And cold queries still account for more than 75% of all new clients that agents accept, so don’t give up. But the more personal you can manage (without finding their home address and taking pictures through their windows), the better off you are.
  • Remember that agents and editors are people. This means a few things. One, it means that if you’re excited about something, they might be too. They’re just people! They have interests just like you and I do. If you get a chance, chat with them. Two, it means they have lives beyond their jobs. You occasionally read a book or go out to eat with a friend (or used to), right? They might want to watch a movie instead of responding to your query right then. They’re only people! Give them a break. Three, it means they might just have a bad (or good) day. If you get a full request and then a couple days later a form rejection, maybe the agent took a look at the full and went “Oh, wow, I guess was feeling lenient that day…” Or maybe the agent took a look at the manuscript and said “Crap, I literally just signed another book like this and I can’t have two at once.” Some days we all look at something and hate it even if it’s fine because we’re just having that kind of day. Don’t take it too personally.

The Do Not’s

  • Be unprofessional. Everyone’s definition of professionalism will vary a bit, but here’s some pointers if you’re unsure. It is unprofessional to start your query, in-person pitch, or other contact with “Hey buddy!” or “I know you aren’t going to accept this because agents are always too picky, but…” or “So this is a book that is just amazing. It’s completely groundbreaking in how well it depicts the lives of…” The first is way too casual, the second is insulting, and the third is building yourself up too much. You want to sound like a businessperson with some personality, not like a surfer-stereotype trying to sell a get rich quick scheme or a self-aggrandizing jerk.
  • Send a physical query letter. There’s a little bit of remaining debate on this one, but 90% or more of agencies and publishing houses don’t accept physical queries at all, anymore. A growing number don’t even accept personal e-mails and instead require you to fill out a form. For non-fiction this may be a slightly more controversial topic (I’ve heard some non-fiction agents still prefer physical query letters), but I live by Jonathan Maberry’s opinion on this one: If the publishing house is so behind the times as to use physical query letters, they’re also behind the times on marketing you and your book. You’ll get better representation from someone who knows how to navigate social media and internet marketing. Especially if you’re someone for whom that is difficult.
  • Respond to a form letter. Typically this recommendation comes from horror stories of agents who send a rejection and then get a nasty email back accusing the agent of everything from lying about the quality of the book to being afraid to publish such genius to wanting to steal the idea. People who send those nasty emails are idiots, and I probably can’t help them. For the rest of us, also don’t reply to the form letter, even if just to send a “thank you for considering my book” note. I’ve done this and it’s not a black-list move or anything, but all it does it take my time and clutter the agent’s inbox.
  • Be creepy. I joked about this in my direct contact point above, but seriously, some people need to learn boundaries. An agent is a professional that you are considering hiring. If you know more about their personal life than their neighbor, you are probably being creepy. Anything they post on social media is fair game, anything in a bio or interview is fair game, and anything they say during a work-related video or workshop is fair game. Beyond that, if you overhear it, pretend you didn’t.

Things to Remember

A couple quick points that I want to address because they are often overlooked when talking about querying. You query your book—or pitch in person—because you want to get accepted by a particular agency or publishing house. But too often we act like them accepting us means we have to do what they say.

You don’t.

An agent is a person that you hire to represent your work. The only reason you’re submitting to them as opposed to picking the right service provider out of a directory is because they work exclusively on commission, and as a result they have to be selective about which projects they take on. Similarly, a publishing house is a business to who you are selling your book in return for them giving you a cut of the money they make off it. They can do literally anything with that book once they buy it (within the terms of their contract). There have even been reports (though unconfirmed and long ago now) of times when publishers purchased books that were too similar to an existing franchise they owned simply to prevent it from becoming big.

I have said before and will say again: I have nothing again traditional publishing. It is the right path for many people. But there are only two real differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing: Who gets to make final decisions and who’s footing the bill for releasing the book.

The point of all that, though, is to emphasize this important point: At some point, if you get good at querying, someone will reject your book and say “I really like this concept, but I’m not sure about X. If you ever do a rewrite that changes that, I’d love to take another look.” If that change fits your vision, then change it and resubmit. If it doesn’t, move on. That agent may be an exceptional agent in general, but they aren’t the one you want to hire for that project.

To Wrap All This Up

Pitching a novel is a complex, frustrating, time consuming process, but it’s a puzzle that can be solved with enough research and, yes, luck. I may sound like a terrible source for this information, given that I’ve decided to go self-publishing, but I wasn’t always on that path. I did all this research, I queried hundreds of agents, I talked to dozens of agents, editors, and writers at conferences about this topic. And only after I started getting good at it did I decide this wasn’t the right path for me. I didn’t choose self-publishing because I couldn’t make this work, and neither should you. In fact, I credit much of the quality of my debut novel and confidence I have in my writing to having gone through this process. My best advice, from my personal experience.

Query agents. If at all possible, find a way to directly pitch one. Once you start getting positive responses from that process, then decide if you want to self-publish.


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Indie-pub vs. Trad-pub

Many writers begin their writing journey with a dream. That big name publisher calls, excited by their book, and offers them a huge advance. The fans swarm their book signings. And then comes the movie deal, or the TV adaptation. And then they start hearing statistics about how many writers fail to ever get published at all and the starry eyes fade, the dream hides a little bit, and they buckle down to the work of writing. Or not. Let’s be honest, some people give up when they realize that dream is just wishful thinking. But for those of us who stick it out, we get to work. And at some point, that work leads us to this question: Is traditional publishing the right route for me?

Up until five or six months ago, I was convinced that traditional publishing was the best option for my work. I had been diligently editing based on beta reader feedback. I’d been through a few rounds of querying and felt confident with the process. I’d even received a few partial manuscript requests from cold queries, which anyone in the querying world knows is a pretty big step in the right direction. It’s not a full, and it’s not an R&R, but it means your query is likely doing its job. And then I pitched at a writer’s conference to an agent who was really, really excited about the concept I was pitching. I eagerly ran through a final polish of my query materials, sent the query through the form she’d told me to use, and waited to hear how much of the book she wanted to see.

I got my form rejection in six days.

Now everyone who has been very far into querying has had that one rejection that just crushes their hopes and this was it for me. Not just an agent I was interested in. Not an agent whose MSWL seemed to match my project perfectly. I’d seen those before. But this was the agent who seemed to really connect with my ideas when we spoke and she liked the story I was trying to bring to life. She knew the project. I personally know another of her clients who she picked up despite that client’s book having pacing issues she asked them to adjust after signing, so she’s not prone to rejecting a book because it might need some work. And she gave up on my book after the ten to fifteen pages included in the basic query.

To say I was demoralized is the wildest of understatements. I immediately quit querying (even though I had just restarted a query cycle), I sent my book back to a new round of betas, and I started questioning every sentence in the draft. Does this one really need to be here? Does that sound like telling instead of showing? Is this emotion overdone? Is my conclusion okay? Are my characters bad? I challenged things the agent hadn’t even known existed in the draft, because maybe that eventual turn destroyed the entire book and my knowledge of it caused me to write something earlier poorly.

After about a month and a half of this frantic scrambling to determine what I’d done wrong, I had to admit it. This rejection wasn’t about my book. It was about the agent’s expectations for how this sort of storyline might play out. She’d referenced Game of Thrones as a series she’d love to see something similar to, and I realized she’d meant the TV series and all its sensationalism, not the books with their painstaking (and therefore very slow) world building. She rejected me for writing epic fantasy, instead of just high fantasy. And that is when I started seriously considering self-publishing for the first time.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

I’ve assumed thus far that you know the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing. For the purpose of this post, I am using the term “self-publishing” to refer to all forms of “pay for your own services to release a book” publishing. However, there is a wide range of tactics used to publish outside traditional publishing, so this blanket category is somewhat misleading. It’s worth understanding the distinctions between the processes, but in many instances the points here apply similarly to all forms of self-publishing. If you need a refresher of the basics of each form, here’s the rough outline of each.

Traditional Publishing
  • Requires querying agents, who then query publishing houses, who ultimately decide who gets published
  • Requires a certain level of skill to get a foot in the door, followed by a decent chunk of luck to get noticed by the right agent, then more luck to get noticed by the right editor
  • Offers an up-front advance of money if you get selected for publication…but that’s not as good as it sounds (for a few reasons)
  • All costs of publishing are paid for by the publishing house (if you’re paying anything up front, you aren’t getting traditionally published)
  • Provides help in the form of a team of editors, artists, marketing professionals, and your own personal cheerleader (that agent you worked so hard to get)
  • Almost never does as much marketing as the author thinks they will, and generally not as much as the book needs
  • Control of cover, editing, marketing, and release details entirely in the hand of the publishing house
  • Very low royalties, and you get to share those with your agent, too (Plus, taxes! Don’t forget taxes)
Self-Publishing
  • Nothing barring entry for anyone willing to click a few buttons on some free publishing software (a point both good and bad)
  • No marketing done beyond what the author does, and marketing can be expensive
  • Author must pay for all cover work, editing, marketing materials, publication fees, and anything else that comes up (good editing and cover design are also expensive)
  • Offers very little visibility without a great deal of work, resulting in typically much lower sales numbers
  • Allows complete author control over editing, cover design, marketing, release details, price and price adjustments, etc. (not always as good as it sounds)
  • No built-in team to lean on when you have questions (all research and planning has to be done by the author)
  • Relies heavily on luck and author work to get noticed, but if you get noticed, you have just as good a chance of being successful as a traditionally published author (even getting on bookstore shelves, if you do it right)
  • Much, much higher royalty rates, and they’re all yours (except taxes. Don’t forget taxes)

The Catch

I said above that a few of the points weren’t as good as they sounded. These included author advances from traditional publishing, the easy availability of publishing under the self-publishing model, and the freedom of choice in self-publishing. Let’s take a look at an example.

Jane Trad and Amy Indie

For fairness, we’ll set the stage this way: Jane Trad has been working on her novel for years. She’s gone through betas, edits, querying, agent submissions, and she’s finally received an offer from a traditional publishing house. The contract says her release date is two years out (relatively standard, though some are longer and I’ve heard of one as short as 16 months) and her advance will be $8,000. On the same day, Amy Indie decides that her manuscript, which she has been working on for at least a year and has edited using critique partners and beta readers, is ready to self publish. Amy, being a responsible indie author, is ready to scope out professional editors and get this show on the road.

Now Jane is very excited. Her advance isn’t super high, but it’s decent and relatively common (she’s a fantasy author, so a publisher has to give her at least $3,000 or they can’t be a publisher under the SWFA, barring any grandfather clauses exempting long-established publishers). Right off the top of that advance comes 15% for Jane’s agent, so she’s really got a $6,800 advance. But that $6,800 is not a lump sum. She gets it in installments over the course of her publication process. Most publishing houses have three installments (or did before COVID hit) but it’s not entirely uncommon to see a four-installment contract. Let’s say Jane’s is three. The first installment comes when she signs the contract. $2,667 right out the gate (minus her agent’s 15%) gives her a take home of $2,267…from which she immediately sets aside taxes.

As Jane is doing her happy dance, Amy begins researching editors and cover designers. Amy falls down a black hole of Google searches, reading post after post about how much various services should cost. How is it possible there are so many different answers to this simple question? That guy says he’ll do a developmental edit for $250, but these three blogs say developmental editors cost $0.03/word at a minimum. Author A recommends his amazing editor, but when Amy looks at a sample of Author A’s book she cringes. The characters are absurd, the plot is random, women are “breasting boobily” places instead of just walking. Is this the author or the editor? How did this even get published?

Oh, right. Because self-publishing has no gatekeepers. And as a result, when Amy self-publishes, many potential readers will think her book has quality like this.

With a determined sigh, Amy begins making a list of every self-published author whose books she respects and tries to find any advice they have about finding editors and cover artists. Meanwhile, Jane has worked with her agent and sent in an initial version of her manuscript. She waits for her first round of edits, the developmental edit, so she can get started. Two years before release, she doesn’t have much to do for her book’s publication besides wait and try to write something new. Under some contracts she might need to supply marketing copy or discuss title adjustments, but let’s say the publisher liked her query blurb and title and are giving that to marketing as is. The marketing department will still make changes, but Jane doesn’t have to do anything about it right now.

So she stares at blank pages, wonders how many changes she’ll have to make, tries to think of a unique characteristic for a new protagonist. She has a great idea for the sequel to her first book, but she only got a one-book contract, so her agent told her to write something unconnected for now in case this doesn’t sell. Jane tries to blog and become engaged in social media, since she needs the connections to promote her book, but she doesn’t really know what to say. She’s not well-known and she can’t talk about her book yet. Finally, eight weeks after submission, Jane gets her edits. The editor said six weeks, but editors are always overworked, so it took a bit longer. Jane has a month to get her changes made and resubmitted.

By now, Amy has muddled through the confusion of Google and chosen an editor, proofreader, and cover designer. Her cover designer also does formatting for a small additional fee, so she’s done picking services. The editor is booking three months out, but her cover designer is busy and won’t have a spot for six months. She’s happy with him, though, so she’s willing to wait. Amy sets her release date for eight months out so she’ll have time to prep after getting everything done. Then, Amy announces on her social media and to her network that her book will be releasing later that year. She begins planning a marketing strategy, recruiting some of her beta readers to help her spread the word, and preparing to run a pre-order campaign. She also decides on a price for her book. She picks the relatively common price of $8.99 to be competitive.

After a grueling month of intensive editing, Jane finally finishes her edits and sends the completed draft back. While she doesn’t make every change, she feels like most of them are an improvement to the story and if she has any questions she can ask her agent. Now she has another wait, filled with any number of relatively minor obligations to her publisher and a growing need to build her market. In another month and a half the editor sends back a second round of changes, a few more developmental items but mostly line edits this time, which Jane has to finish in three weeks. By the time Amy’s editing appointment comes around, Jane is sending her second round of edits back to the editor.

Amy sends her book in to her editor and continues her marketing and social media campaigns. She gets the edits back in a month, pays her editor (typically around $2,500), and evaluates the recommendations. She makes the changes she agrees with and stares in crippling anxiety at the others, unsure if she is making a mistake by choosing not to implement those changes. But there’s no one for Amy to ask for advice, and she is the final arbiter of what changes get made in the book. If the editing sucks (if women start “breasting boobily” places) it’s all on her. Amy feels bad for rejecting Author A’s editor. He can’t control what Author A did with his recommendations. So, Amy signs up for a month of a writing aid software and looks at the recommendations it gives to evaluate why the editor’s changes might be good or bad.

As she begins that, Jane gets her manuscript accepted by the publisher. This is different from signing the contract to publish. It means that the publishing house thinks the book is now ready for the next step. Along with this comes Jane’s second installment of her advance, same numbers as before, and she’s done a lot of work I that time. Certainly more than her advance is worth in hourly wages. But Jane isn’t here for the advance money. She’s getting her book published! And they’re paying her for it! She can make money off the book after it releases.

While Jane waits for the next round of edits, or her cover, or whatever the next step is, Amy has decided on her final edits. She has a proofread-ready copy. Except for the formatting, which will happen during cover design. In the two months before that begins, Amy prepares a pre-order campaign. She announces, talks about her book’s upcoming release, and starts collecting some ARC readers to give initial reviews. When her cover appointment comes around, she has a stack of covers from similar books to discuss and she and her cover designer come up with a great idea. That plus the formatting is done within three weeks of beginning and Amy pays for that. Because she went with a photo-realistic cover from an experienced artist and formatting is included, she pays $600 to the cover designer. She announces a cover reveal and sends her formatted manuscript to her proofreader.

Jane’s activity at this point varies widely by publisher. Maybe she’s already received her cover, or maybe she’s in the middle of copy edits. Maybe she’s just blogging, talking on social media, and trying to find writer’s conferences to attend. What is guaranteed is she hasn’t received her third installment yet. That won’t come until publication day from most publishers. Some publishers define “accepted manuscript” differently and wouldn’t have even paid her second installment yet. But whatever Jane’s step in the process is, she isn’t in control of any of the decisions being made about her book. She might get consulted on the cover, or she might not, but at the end of the day the publisher decides what her book will look like.

When Amy gets her book back from the proofreader, about two to three weeks, and pays about $1,000 for that, she’s ready to publish. Ten months after beginning the publishing process, Jane is waiting for her next steps while Amy announces that her book is now available. She’s already received ten sales through pre-order, which all count as sales on day one.

Status Report

Let’s pause right here and evaluate the standing of these two stories. Amy and Jane have been through a lot of stress over these ten months. Jane oscillated through stretches of endless waiting followed by short bursts of frantic activity and she’s not even half done yet. Amy struggled through a far too massive amount of dubiously accurate information to make decisions, and she has no idea if she made good choices. In the process, Amy spent around $4,000, while Jane earned about $4,500 and saved the $4,000 that Amy spent. That’s an $8,500 financial difference between what Amy spent and what Jane made. To make that up with a typical self-publishing royalty rate of 35-70%, Amy is going to have to sell between 1,351 and 2,700 copies of her book, depending on what royalty structure she uses.

Surely Jane’s strategy is better, right? She’s even got another lump sum coming up…in fourteen months.

So is Jane doing better? Amy went through a lot with that process, but she has a book out now. And to “break even” by selling enough to cover her publishing costs, she needs half as many books as I’ve listed above. She can continue building her social media presence and network with references to that book, and she can write the sequel she has planned. Plus, Amy has already sold ten books (about $31.50-$63 of her money made back). How many more might she sell before Jane’s book even releases? The average book sells 3,000 copies in its entire lifetime. Amy makes money on that number—between 676 and 1,350 copies to recoup her costs, then she makes between $5,190 and $14,625 on the rest of her sales. A total of $9,190-$18,625 if she makes the average sales numbers.

On the other hand, Jane’s royalty rate means she earns very little…after she finally starts getting any royalties. That advance she was so excited about is taken out of her royalty payments. I’ll admit, not being traditionally published, that I’m not certain how the math works out here, but let’s assume the scenario best for the author. The advance was $8,000, so when the book earns $8,000 in gross sales Jane starts getting royalties. Another option (and the one I honestly think most likely) is that Jane starts getting royalties when the total amount of royalties she would have earned without the advance meets $8,000; by that math Jane has to almost double the sales average to get royalties at all. But assuming the better scenario, Jane meets that mark at 890 book sales. The rest of those average sales earn her an additional $2,845 (minus 15% for her agent), or $2,419 in additional income. So a total of $9,219 in the best possible scenario for average sales. That’s not much better than Amy’s low number, and to get it she waited an extra 14 months for publication and lost all of her creative decision-making power.

Now some people may point out that the 3,000 book average is based on traditional publishing and it may not be accurate for self-publishing. That’s true, primarily because the quality of self-published novels varies so widely. For the most part, traditionally published novels all meet a minimum quality standard, so you can compare their sales numbers and get reasonable predictions. But consider, also, that if Amy plans her book releases right and targets readers to her 70% royalty options, she needs just over 1/5th of that average to break even. If Amy sells 2,800 books doing this, she makes more money than Jane’s best case scenario for selling the 3,000 average. And if Amy’s first book never does more than earn her investment back, she can choose to publish a sequel, which makes more people willing to buy her first book. If Jane only sells 676 books, she’s not getting a sequel and she’s lost the right to publish one herself.

For Consideration

Jane’s strategy isn’t necessarily wrong. Some books need the power of a publishing house behind them, and some authors can’t afford the $4,000 that Amy spent on good publishing. But if you can afford to self-publish and have the time or network to get the word out yourself, self-publishing can offer so much more potential. And for those people who can afford good self-publishing, the only thing traditional publishing has to offer is a reputation.


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Trad Pub: If you’re going to debut in epic fantasy, you better be the exception

All writers have heard it: “You’re not the exception. Follow the rules.” But when it comes to the rules of word counts, there is one major exception that everyone seems to overlook. Epic Fantasy.

What is Epic Fantasy?

This is a surprisingly unclear term. I was sure I knew what it meant until someone asked me to define it, and then someone else argued that my definition was wrong. So here’s a few of the hang-ups.

  1. Epic Fantasy is often used interchangeably with High Fantasy
  2. High Fantasy definitions range from “anything set in a secondary world” to “Fantasy with a heavy presence of magic and/or complex magic systems that substantially affect the world” to “Fantasy with a broad, overarching scope.” And I’m sure there are plenty I haven’t mentioned.
  3. Longer fantasy books are struggling to survive the choking word count restraints of traditional publishing

I don’t want to spend a lot of time making a case for one or another definition—There are lots of good arguments on all sides of that. So, for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to define the terms and move on.

Epic fantasy, as used below, refers to fantasy with a broad scope of plot encompassing world-level changes, consequences, or involvement, often (but not always) set in a secondary world. This means that an epic fantasy romance is one in which the central romantic plotline both occurs in a world with fantastical elements and has consequences which will change the world as a whole, not just the couple families or even kingdoms the lovers live in. Note that the secondary world expectation is not required and there is no level of magic/fantastical creature presence in this definition, so a low-magic historical epic fantasy fits perfectly.

High fantasy, for the purposes of this discussion, refers to secondary world fantasy which typically includes a strong element of magic or fantastical creatures integrated into the world. Games of Thrones, for example, is arguably not high fantasy by this definition, but is epic fantasy.

These two definitions are mostly arbitrary, but the primary distinction of scope is important. Most of the things I discuss apply equally to epic and high fantasy, but high fantasy suffers from these problems a lot less in one-shot, standalone novels. Epic fantasy might struggle to include a standalone novel at all.

Word Count Requirements

Now that we’ve defined some terms, let’s talk word counts. Here’s a few lists of recommended word counts by genre that I use regularly: Writer’s Digest, Bookends Literary Agency, and Writers & Artists. There’s an exception listed in almost all lists for adult targeted science fiction and fantasy, sometimes they even label it as space opera and high fantasy, that let’s you write up to 120,000 words. Half again as much as the standard 80,000 word count for contemporary novels. Sounds great! They understand that epic fantasy novels are longer. But now do a quick search. Pick some of your favorite adult high fantasy books and look up their word count. Here’s a few off my list:

  • Magic’s Pawn, Mercedes Lackey, Debut Novel, estimated around 106,000 words (1989)
  • Daughter of the Blood, Anne Bishop, Debut Novel, estimated around 146,000 words (1998)
  • Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey, Debut Novel, approximately 276,000 words (2001)
  • Elantris, Brandon Sanderson, Debut Novel, approximately 201,000 words (2005)
  • The Warded Man, Peter V. Brett, Debut Novel, approximately 158,000 words (2008)
  • Way of Shadows, Brent Weeks, Debut Novel, approximately 156,000 words (2008)
  • The Tethered Mage, Melissa Caruso, Debut Novel, approximately 124,000 words (2017)

Do I enjoy books that aren’t debut novels? Of course, but I’ve self-selected off my favorites list to make a point. Publishing has an excuse for why so few high fantasy novels fall within the word count guidelines. Those books were written by established authors who had readers already waiting for the next release. Or, the first book in the series is always the shortest. That first book in the series is probably close to guidelines, right? Those “long” fantasy books are all the exceptions to the rules of word counts: books written by already famous authors or the books so well written that they broke the mold. Or my personal favorite: Maybe in past times longer books were more accepted, but these days readers just don’t have the attention span for longer, more complex novels like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books.

But every book in my list above was a debut novel, and only one falls into the current publishing guidelines. That book was released in 1989. That’s eight years before George R.R. Martin’s 292,000 word series opener, A Game of Thrones.

A close second to fitting the word count guidelines is Melissa Caruso’s 2017 The Tethered Mage, and to be frank, I wished it was longer. As good as that book was, the plot and the world felt under-developed, and as a result I haven’t bought any of the follow-up novels. It felt like a one-shot, and until doing research for this blog, I actually didn’t know there were sequels. The story didn’t leave any room for them, so it never occurred to me to look.

So now that my rant is properly set up, let’s discuss what’s going on here. There’s a few factors at work.

Literary Agents Read Too Much

This sounds absurd. The entire job of being a literary agent is to read, right? Well, not really. What literary agents actually get paid for is knowing the market, negotiating contracts, and helping authors make the connections to sell their books. Literary agents are salespeople, contract negotiators, and advocates for their clients. In the process, some of those agents also offer writing and editing feedback to their clients, but their primary job is to sell books to editors.

So why do agents read so much? Well they often get one hundred to two hundred queries a month, sometimes more, and beyond that they have to keep up to date with what the current market is publishing and what appears to be selling. This results in a frustrating catch-22. Agents have to read to know their job. But the more agents read, the more they get frustrated with seeing the same things over and over. “80’s Fantasy” came back into style about fifteen years ago, and it went back out of style before many readers ever got tired of the revival. Why? Because agents and editors saw so many books in that style (undoubtedly hundreds more than they published) that publishing got over-saturated and bored with the common tropes in those fields long before the reading public did.

And therein lies the problem.

Editors, agents, and other publishing house professionals steep themselves in the world of books, tracking every book release (or at least, an awful lot of them), tracking sales of each book type, and reading as much as they can manage. Your average agent or editor reads way more than your average author, and your average author reads a lot more than your average target audience member.

This is especially clear when you get feedback on a novel from writers and readers at the same time. The writers will critique your placement of various bits of information and your sentence structure, while the reader ignores all that and tells you the book was either great and they enjoyed it or not so great and they were confused, bored, etc. If the reader loved it, does the clunky sentence really matter that much? I’ve heard and participated in long debates between authors over novel formats, use of POVs, scene length and structure, consistency in character presence. I then asked a few readers about the things discussed and the consensus boiled down to “Well, I see your point, but my favorite novel has [example that refutes my point] and it’s a favorite for a lot of readers. I’m just not sure readers actually care about that…”

So what do readers care about? It’s hard to tell. They’ll tell you things, but often they don’t know how to articulate what they mean so what they ask for isn’t really what they want. The best barometer for reader enjoyment seems to be this: If you enjoy it, then readers like you will probably enjoy it, and no one is so unique as to have entirely unique interests. Someone shares your excitement for what you’re writing. You just have to find them.

Traditional Publishing Misreads Why Some Things Don’t Sell

Hunger Games was a sensation, but Divergent wasn’t as good. Not because it came later and people were tired of those tropes, but because the book actually wasn’t as good. Tris was a boring character who rebelled simply because she wanted to feel pretty and was forced into the revelation that she was “special.” In contrast, Katniss was someone who wanted to sneak by under the oppressive ruler’s radar and took calculated risks for the benefit of people she loved, who sacrificed herself early in book one to save her sister. In the long run, Tris was proven to be the one person born with special powers that confirmed a theory of humanity, while Katniss remained a normal girl who fought against being something she wasn’t and eventually confronted the fundamental corruption of rebellions that create figureheads for promotional purposes. From book one, Hunger Games kicks Divergent’s ass. Post-apocalyptic YA novels that sort children into factions aren’t out of fashion, YA novels with boring characters are out of fashion.

This same comparison is true for dragon rider novels (Dragon Riders of Pern was only matched in quality by Naomi Novik, who took the same exact tropes and put them in Napoleonic Europe), portal fantasy (Christopher Stasheff was my guy, but there were a few of these that were good), paranormal romance (hate on Twilight if you want, it was massive), and a dozen others. Ask a publishing house why you can’t write those things and they’ll say “That went out of style,” “Dragon Riders aren’t big right now.” But when was the last really good dragon rider novel published? I’ve looked for some on Amazon. They all suck. If that’s what’s “not big right now,” I can’t say I’m surprised, but it has nothing to do with dragon rider novels and everything to do with crappy writing.

I heard a story once (unconfirmed), that after George R.R. Martin got famous he had to start arguing with his editor to actually edit his books for quality. I believe it, not because of anything about Martin’s books or any personal knowledge of Martin himself, but because of what I often hear from agents and editors at conferences:

  • “Once you prove you can carry an audience, you can get away with longer books.”
  • “If you sell well enough, you can start doing things like flashbacks and info-dumps, but as a debut you need to make sure an agent has no reason to reject you.”
  • “Write what you want, but be aware of the market when you pitch. Once you’re established you can start trying to publish books in [insert genre/trope you asked about here].”

So what I’m hearing is, when we think you’ll make money no matter what, we care less what you do. Mercedes Lackey, one of my favorite authors, took her well established and developed world and started writing a Harry Potter knockoff in it which broke every rule of her world that she’d ever created (complete with a her-world equivalent of Quiddich). I’m aware I’m not the target audience for those books, but imagine if a debut YA author tried to write a Harry Potter knockoff. They’d get laughed out the door for all the wrong reasons.

Traditional Publishing is Scared of Failing

Publishing is a business. Longer books take more money to print, and books that are more expensive to produce make publishing houses less profit. As a result, word count expectations became a requirement across all genres so that publishing houses could predict how many of each type of book they could afford to publish. That’s understandable. A business that can’t predict costs is a business that’s about to go bankrupt. Here’s the kicker. Before the massive increase in self-publishing popularity, traditional publishers had a safety net in the form of mid-list authors: authors who wrote relatively formulaic stories pretty quickly and who had a dedicated audience that would buy anything that author wrote. This included a lot of romance series, a lot of westerns, most of the monster-of-the-week sword and sorcery fantasy, etc.

As a result of mid-listers, publishing houses had the leeway to take a chance on all sorts of books that might not sell as well as they’d hoped. If it flopped, they’d drop the author, if it did okay they’d give the author another shot. And then, in the mid to late 2000’s, self-publishing started to get big. Mid-listers discovered that they could make the same sales for more income through self-publishing, depriving publishing houses of their safety nets. Why do we care?

Because this is the reason behind strict word count limits.

Publishers might hedge the truth if you ask, but word counts aren’t really all about book quality. They’re about protecting the publishing house from a costly investment on a book that might not sell well. The list of debut novels above is in chronological order. In 2001 and 2005 a couple great books at or above 200,000 words came out. By 2008 we were down to about 160,000, and in 2017 it had dropped to 124,000. Correlation does not mean causation, but the timing fits. Self-publishing hit the traditional publishing houses hard, and they responded by tightening their word counts.

Your 300,000 word epic fantasy might need trimmed down (honestly, it probably does), but it also might need all that description to make sense. Publishers, however, see a book that costs over twice as much in production cost per copy as Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage, which was very popular. If yours doesn’t sell at least twice as well, you’ve lost them a lot of money.

To combat the damage that self-publishing did to their safety nets, publishing made a decision. Books over 120,000 words are high risk investments, even in a subgenre where books surpass 200,000 words regularly. What they’re missing is that those word counts are killing the epic fantasy subgenre. People are combining epic fantasy with high fantasy and scaling the definition back to just “anything set in a secondary world” because there’s almost nothing outside Brandon Sanderson that even fits the more traditional definition of epic fantasy anymore.

Your 300,000 word epic fantasy better be one damned amazing “exception” if you plan to debut it through traditional publishing.

In Summation

I’ve spent a lot of this post listing problems with traditional publishing, and I want to be clear: traditional publishing is a great option. There’s a lot of benefits, including an up front lump sum payment regardless of how well you sell and a host of editors and other support to help you make decisions and plan next steps. You also don’t have to manage all the various bits of your publication process like a self-published author does. They’ll handle distribution, getting you on the list of potential reviews by important reviewers, and give you the credibility some marketing options require to get your foot in the door. And even if you choose to go with self-publishing, all the work of refining and editing and cutting extraneous wording that traditional publishers push still needs to happen. You just have to do it all yourself. For authors whose genres fit into the models that traditional publishing bases its revenue on, it’s the best option for a lot of people.

Epic fantasy is not one of those genres.

This is significant because traditionally epic fantasy has been seen as the purview of traditional publishing. Steampunk and many genres of romance, among others, have thrived on self-publishing, but a lot of the bigger storyline books have been mis-categorized as good for traditional publishing because of greater visibility. The truth is, the new model of traditional publishing is stunting the growth of epic fantasy books. At its core, epic fantasy is a niche subgenre, just like steampunk. Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are household names, but how many people outside the epic fantasy readership remember Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archives, and Sword of Truth? I’ve met YA fantasy writers who’ve never heard of George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, or Brandon Sanderson. Epic fantasy is a lot more niche than we think it is and traditional publishing can’t take a chance on niche genres right now.

If you’re like me and want to adhere to the definitions of epic fantasy I listed above, you have two options: self-publish or write something that isn’t epic fantasy for your debut.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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For some original fiction, check out these posts:
For more thoughts on publishing and writing, check out these posts: